Extending the Book: Alexandra Chasin’s Brief (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012)

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Yesterday, Hyperallergic Weekend published my review-essay of Alex Chasin’s excellent ipad app-novel Brief.  These are my first two paragraphs:

Alexandra Chasin’s Brief, an innovative narrative in the form of an iPad app, is “Exhibit A” in the case that the novel is finding exciting new ways to reinvent itself after the digital turn. Brief, the first novel-app of its kind, would make a rich and wonderful addition to any syllabus or reading list on appropriation, experimental fiction, new media literature, visual studies, violence and representation, or text and image, and I hope in these “brief” paragraphs to adumbrate some of the reason why.

The text portion of Brief, which can be read like a conventional e-book, is an extended monologue in the voice of a leftist art vandal whose “nom-de-plume-de-guerre” is “Inqui, the Destroyer.” We eventually learn that Inqui’s offense is “a copy-cat crime of appreciation and appropriation of, an homage to Tony Shafrazi, when he tagged Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece [Guernica] with ‘KILL LIES ALL.’” (When asked to promise never to do it again, Shafrazi told the judge that “it would be crazy to repeat an act like that… [b]ecause it had been done.”)

And this is a description of the novel from Jaded Ibis Press:

Written, designed and programmed specifically to be read as an interactive book, Brief randomly pulls images to illustrate the text of the novel. This provides a wildly different visual experience for every reader.”

Alexandra Chasin’s fiercely entertaining debut novel, Brief, enters the realm of interactive books as a first in the oncoming wave of literary writing designed to incorporate the medium as an integral part of the storyline.

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The randomly generated images that appear on screen (I love the film still of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in the example above) remind me of the popular eighteenth and nineteenth century practice known as “Grangerizing.”  According to the OED, to “Grangerize” is “[t]o illustrate (a book) by the addition of prints, engravings, etc., especially such as have been cut out of other books.”  The following image –which comes from a fascinating exhibit from the Folger Library called “Extending the Book: The Art of Extra-Illustration” is of a 1857 volume of Shakespeare illustrated by New York bibliophile Robert Hoe Jr. (1839–1909).

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The image on the recto side comes from a watercolor by Edward Edwards (which was the original design for the frontispiece to John Bell’s 1773–4 edition of The Tempest).  There are, of course, many differences between Chasin’s use of digital images and older appropriative practices of extra-illustration.  Of the doublespread above, the Folger website says, “the watercolor appears close to the action it depicts”–when Caliban encounters Stephano and Trinculo.  In Brief, however, the relationship between text and pictorial representation is much more unstable–in an interview, Chasin says that the  “constantly chang[ing]…relationship of text to image…reinforces visually a question the text raises about the radically changing status of the image in the early 1960s”–and it is one of the reasons why the reading experience is so much fun.

~ by Michael Leong on March 18, 2013.

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